The war machine rumbles on
At this point, most should be familiar with Activision’s immensely popular Call of Duty franchise. The FPS series has been a mainstay for the last generation of consoles and PC alike, known for both its action-packed campaign and ultra-competitive multiplayer modes. This year it’s developer Treyarch’s turn to hold the reins of the series with Call of Duty: Black Ops II. So how does the latest entry compare to the others, and should you give the series another investment?
Black Ops II breaks down into three different modes which are played independently. There’s a single-player campaign, multiplayer, and Zombies.
On the surface, the campaign appears to be standard fare for the series. You would not be entirely wrong to call it more of the same, but Treyarch has made significant additions to the formula with this game.
First off, the player has limited but significant control over the course of the story. At a few points in the campaign there are multiple outcomes possible depending on if you pass or fail some critical objective. In most levels, failing an objective just reloads the level, but a few are dynamic. This is an interesting feature, although it doesn’t really save the narrative from being typical of the genre.
The story plays out across various time periods. Flashbacks allow the game to take you back to the Vietnam war, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and other locales. The game also takes you forward in time to fight as a futuristic soldier. Overall, the story is justification for changes in technology and location. I did not find it particularly engaging or unique.
One thing Treyarch added to the campaign that is fantastic is the ability to customize your loadout. Before you enter a mission you can set your primary, secondary, and grenade weapons, plus add attachments to your guns and inventory. As you play, more stuff unlocks. This is a boon for players, allowing them to dictate or apply their own play style into the mission. By giving the gamer a little more control, they help place the player in the shoes of the operative.
Black Ops II also features some truly amazing ideas in the inventory. One new item is the Access Kit. This all-purpose kit allows you to see spots where you can access otherwise inaccessible parts of the map. This proved essential for me, as I enjoyed hunting around the missions for alternate solutions to problems or encounters.
On top of the expected mission set, Black Ops II also adds in another sub-mode known as Strike Force missions. These are optional missions that play like a RTS. The player can zoom to a map-wide view and delegate orders to groups of units, and assume direct first-person control of any unit they have available. This means the player can pilot a walking tank – a small-tread assault drone – or jump between individual soldiers on the battlefield. I found the controls of Strike Force to be a little clunky, but once I got used to them the missions themselves were decent.
Strike Force boils down to a control point battle against the AI. You either attack or defend key objective markers, and as they fall secondary objectives can unlock. Strike Force provides a different style of game than the straightforward campaign missions and adds variety. However, those looking for an FPS fix are not exactly going to find it. The missions require oversight and a little micromanaging. You cannot simply ignore the other units and let the AI fight the whole way. The AI in Strike Force is especially dumb regardless of the difficulty setting. The game simply has too much to do to make individual enemies do more than charge objectives and shoot haphazardly. On that note, I would love to see Strike Force fleshed out as a full release on its own, and perhaps with a multiplayer component.
Call of Duty multiplayer is a huge community and it takes its game very seriously. Lucky for them, the developers are very supportive, and implement lots of feedback into updates and future content. Black Ops II is no different, it makes some very subtle yet significant changes to the multiplayer formula.
The biggest change to multiplayer is the idea of Scorestreaks. The rewards that used to be awarded for consecutive or cumulative kills are now awarded by score. Simple, right? This has a massive effect on the game, provided you are playing an objective-based match. In a team deathmatch, Scorestreaks are no different from Killstreaks.
Once you drop into a game of Capture the Flag, or Demolition, they can play a key role in strategy or your play style. If a single kill nets you 100 points, objective actions like planting or disarming a bomb, capturing a flag, or killing a defender of the enemy flag will net you extra score.
Sometimes a single action can get you four to five times the points of a kill. Even kill assists will grant you some points. This means the games are much more objective-oriented. Players who play to the spirit of the mode will be rewarded with tangible ways to aid their team, rather than just XP. It even assures that players who are able to land hits, but perhaps not kills, will still get some points to add to their total.
Once you hit the appropriate score threshold, you gain access to the Scorestreak you’ve set for yourself. Air strikes, remote turrets, a helicopter that functions as a spawn point for your team, these are all things you can have available to you.
Players who dominate the match with kills are still going to see Scorestreaks more often. This change will help strategic players feel included, as defending a flag or defusing a bomb are important tasks. Treyarch has simply made sure that most players will have a chance to call in some kind of reward for themselves and their team.
Black Ops II has some truly unique maps that are easy to identify. If I said “the aircraft carrier map”, a Black Ops II player would know the one I mean. Love them or hate them, most Black Ops II maps stand apart from anonymous villages and forests.
Within multiplayer, there’s also the League Play modes. You can compete solo, or as a team/clan. These are the realm of the super-competitive players looking to climb the ladders for fame and glory. You can tell that Treyarch is looking to carve out a chunk of the FPS market, and build an ongoing esports-like venue. Add in free support for the Call of Duty Elite service and you’ve got a game that knows its audience and gives them reason to keep coming back.
The mode that Treyarch tinkered with the least is Zombies. That’s not a bad thing either, the formula simply works. You can battle alone, with friends, or join up with an open game on the network. You then drop into the dire scenario of defending yourself against waves of undead as they shamble towards you and any other human players. The cola machines, the random gun prize box, unlocking new areas of the map, these are all familiar ideas for Call of Duty Zombies players. In most cases, Treyarch simply chose not to mess with what was working.
Black Ops II is expectedly strong in the audio department. The use of 5.1 is particularly good as usual, with rockets and planes being trackable even when off-screen. Voice acting, explosions, and gunfire all come across as believable. On the video and visual side, Call of Duty looks as good as it always has. The engine is starting to show its age, but to be fair, the consoles are too. I was not yanked out of the experience by any noticeable graphical issues or odd AI behaviour (with the exception of Strike Force missions).
Is Black Ops II worth your time? I’d say it is. The game won’t necessarily change anyone’s opinion of the Call of Duty franchise, but it’s a great entry in the family tree, and sports some truly inspired changes and additions. While the game cannot be praised for being entirely original, I would compare it to a great remix of a song you already liked. If you aren’t a fan, or you’re unfamiliar with the series, this is in my top two recommendations. Call of Duty: Black Ops II manages to bring enough new ideas to the table, and provide the player with a good variety of choice and gameplay styles that most FPS fans will find something to eat up their time.
Tested on 360
Review copy provided